After William Millington had known Frances Brader in Lincoln, England, for a few months, he began to think of her as The Widow. She always wore black, and he was given the feeling, by a certain disarrangement in her apartment, that the undertakers had just left. This impression did not stem from malice on his part, for he was fond of Frances. They were the same age, and during their first summer in the city, they used to meet after work and drink martinis in places like No Problemo and the Drill Hall and have dinner and play chess at Corcoran’s.
“You know, Fran, you never did tell me why you always wear black,” William said one evening, moving a white knight into position in the centre of the board.
Frances let out a puff of air. “That was the one move I was hoping you’d miss!” She took a sip of vodka martini.
“Well, did you?” William insisted.
Frances looked at the chessboard and sighed. “That was a damn good move, Bill, you’ve shut me down something rotten.”
“You don’t give up, do you, Bill?”
“Well, we’ve known each other for, what, a year, give or take, got kinda friendly an’ all.” He winked. “Figure it’s time you let me in on the big secret.”
Frances gave a wry smile. “Tell you what, Bill, let’s call this one a draw, buy me another drink and I’ll tell you. But swear to me it’s between you and me and no one else.”
William crossed his heart. “I swear.”
They reset the pieces and left the chess set, relocating to a conservatory full of huge green leaves. It was eight o’clock on a July evening and the other patrons had gone out into the warm summer air to their warm summer homes whilst the die-hards remained seated at the bar, oblivious to anyone or anything out of the range of their drinks.
“Well, Bill, you asked for this one, and no mistake. Are you sure you want to hear it?”
William clinked some ice around in his whisky, inhaling the powerful aroma but postponing the pleasure of the taste. “Come on, Fran, out with it!”
“Well, before I came to Lincoln, I lived in St. Albans, as you know. Well, I told you I worked in a secondhand book shop for a bit, yes?”
“What I didn’t tell you was that we sold rare books too, very rare books, going back to the sixteenth century even, when they were all in Latin. Incunabula they were called.”
William took a sip and closed his eyes, savouring the triple pleasure of the warm, spicy liquor on his tongue, the alcohol nibbling at his brain, and his interest in Frances’s story.
“Anyway, my boss, Bernard, and me, well … well, we were sort of ‘very friendly’.”
William watched as Frances’s cheeks turned quite red. “I see.” He sipped some whisky. “Look Fran, we’re grown-ups. I’m like an angel, I don’t judge.” He winked.
“Well, anyway, Bernie came back from auction one time with a load of books by Charles Dodgson, y’know, Lewis Carroll. First editions of Hunting the Snark, The Game of Logic, with all the counters etc., several firsts and early editions of Alice, some manuscript stuff even. Plus, a lot of other books. I knew he’d spent a fortune; I could tell from the way he was sweating, sopping wet under the armpits he was.”
William looked over to the bar, recognizing no one, but pleased that no one was looking their way. “Go on.”
“Well, the next day I went into work and well … Eunice, Bernie’s wife was there. She told me he’d been killed. Hit by a ‘suspected drunk driver’ whilst walking over a zebra crossing on his way home!” Frances’s eyes became misty. “Well, we didn’t know what to do, but she said Bernie’s brother would come over from another bookshop they ran, and could I manage till lunchtime on my own?”
“That’s awful! Did they catch the guy?”
“No, they didn’t. Anyway, the books – the Lewis Carroll lot – hadn’t been catalogued or anything so I thought, well, why not just take them? I could put them in my car boot, y’know. I mean, I don’t really think of myself as a thief, but, like, no one knew, only the auction house. Eunice wasn’t interested in books and hated Bernie spending money on stock. ‘Why don’t you just sell what you’ve already got,’ she used to say. So he started to pay for them from a secret account.”
“Well, what’s all this got to do with you wearing black?” William asked.
Frances took a gulp of martini. “Well, after Bernie’s funeral he started coming to me in my dreams, telling me to give the books to Eunice. Almost every night it was. I even started to see him around the house, out of the corner of my eye. I felt I was going mad. Then in the dreams, he told me to keep wearing black for him. If I did, well, he’d leave me alone.” Frances looked into William’s eyes. “So I did. And he’s left me alone ever since. You can believe it or not.”
“Well, what happened to those books then?”
Frances sighed. “They were put into auction again, in France. My twin sister lives there. I drove them over there. No one took any notice of them, just a lot of old books I suppose they thought. They were sold under her name. They made … well, a lot of money, a helluva lot actually, and no one’s connected the dots. So far, anyway.”
William looked at Frances’s face, admiring her high cheekbones, her shoulder-length chestnut hair and her wide jade-green eyes. “Are you worried?”
Frances shrugged. “They’ve got more important stuff to think about – rapes, murders y’know.” She smiled. “Well, you did ask. Tell you what, how about another drink and a game of checkers before we go!”
Taken from the book, The Window Crack’d and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Horror and the Supranatural
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